“We are all the things we’ll ever be”

Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2013)

Girl is a Half Formed ThingThis is the latest example of a small press title breaking through: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing was published last year by Norwich’s Galley Beggar Press; it has since won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize (awarded to “fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form”), been shortlisted for the Baileys Prize and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize (which is the context in which I’m now reading it). It has also now been published in a new edition by Faber & Faber, which comes with a cover quote from Eleanor Catton. That’s apposite: both Catton and Eimear McBride have debuted with intense portraits of girlhood, and and their work carries the sense of writers seeking to embody their concerns in the form of what they write.

McBride’s novel is written in a choppy, largely fragmented style that, in one interview, she dubbed “stream of pre-consciousness”. Anyone who loved The Rehearsal will recognise the mental adjustment needed to engage with prose like this:

Sons for breaking chairs on the backs of. Daughters to shoo from the bath for a wee. Rich-ish husbands or they got a crack in the jaw. Chaste-ish wives or the boys got more. Goodfornothinglumpofshitgodforgiveyou. Ours got for a wedding a glare though he paid.He, at least, knew how to behave. Though a man like our father could be nothing to him. Not to lick his boots. Not to be his dog. (p. 12)

My first instinct at one time would have been to call this kind of writing ‘difficult’, but in practice it’s not as simple as that. Taking the above passage as an example, there’s a compelling rhythm and cadence to McBride’s prose, and some striking detail of character (the narrator is talking about her grandfather and his children). What A Girl is a Half-formed Thing really demands is a different way of reading: concentration, yes, because what we’re being told is ‘unprocessed’; but it means that we experience the events of the narrator’s life in a similar way to her.

The ultimate effect of McBride’s prose style, I think, is to collapse the narrator’s interior and exterior lives together: so, experience is sensation is emotion is detail is thought. This makes the novel all the more harrowing, because we are that much closer to what the narrator goes through. And A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is uncompromising: while seeing her elder brother struggle with the effects of a brain tumour, its protagonist (McBride’s characters don’t receive names) experiences a strict religious upbringing in rural Ireland, and the unwelcome attentions of her abusive uncle. When the girl leaves home for the city, she finally has the chance to spread her wings – if she can.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing‘s form underlines how its protagonist experiences what happens to her. The most coherent language within the text is often religious or some other voice of adult authority, thereby suggesting sources of structure and order – but the narrator will find them ultimately lacking. The girl’s relationships with her brother and uncle become ghastly mirror images of each other: she fears for her brother, but his illness creates an unbridgeable gap between them. In contrast, the girl’s uncle comes horrifically close to her – but she experiences both relationships with the same intensity.

After twenty years of life, McBride’s narrator looks around her:

I see the water. Look upon the lake I’ve been in. I’ve been known of. Come to know. Well. Touched and loved and ripped here all by the same hands teeth and claws and waded in. Swim. See my scrawl there. Under my feet. Mud and weeds where I was, my blood split on. Running in running in among the reeds where the ripple fish go. And vomit and some half drunk can, some things, some paper bags some cigarette rolled and stuffed and smoked. Ground to the heel. This home I know. (p. 201)

Just as the text has elided her experiences and emotions, so the girl sees this place as coexisting with what occurred there. For all that has happened to her, this is what she knows; for good or ill, this has been her life.

Going back to Eleanor Catton, I’m reminded of her essay about literature as encounter, the idea that our relationship with a book can be as complex and rich as those we have with people. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is like that for me: I can’t see it as a book to love – it’s too unforgiving for that – but neither can I see it as anything less than a triumph. McBride’s novel does what it does, remorselessly, completely, powerfully. I can only be glad that it’s with us.

Read my other posts on the 2014 Desmond Elliott Prize here.

Elsewhere

Interview with Eimear McBride at The Honest Ulsterman

Reviews of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by other members of the shadow DE jury: Utter Biblio; Between the Covers; Sarah Noakes.

James Smythe, The Machine (2013)

The MachineLast year, I watched ‘Be Right Back’, an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror in which a woman has her dead husband’s personality downloaded into a robot body. It was the kind of intimate, human drama that genre science fiction doesn’t seem to do very much these days (on page or screen); too often, I find, interesting ideas will be drowned out by an ill-suited conspiracy/thriller plot.

It was so refreshing, then, to read James Smythe’s The Machine, and find a work of contemporary science fiction that’s happy to be understated (tellingly, the novel is published as mainstream). We begin with Beth McAdams taking receipt of three large packages. The delivery men don’t know what they are (‘exercise equipment,’ Beth tells them, though she knows they won’t believe her); the neighbours gawp as these parcels have to be brought in through Beth’s window because they won’t fit through the door. When the whole contraption is assembled, it fills most of one wall and emits a constant whirring noise; even before Beth begins using it, the Machine has staked a claim on her world.

The Machine was originally invented as a means of treating the effects of harmful memories (such as those of conflict experienced by soldiers like Beth’s partner Vic), but it left those who used it severely brain-damaged, and the original device was banned. Later, it emerged that the Machine might also be able to reinstate the memories it took; Beth has sourced an outlawed model, and plans to use it on Vic.

So there are questions of identity to be explored – who will Vic be if his memories are restored? for example – but what particularly intrigues me about The Machine is how much it focuses on Beth. The first third of the novel consists largely of Beth’s preparations for the summer holidays, when she will be able to put her teaching job aside and concentrate on tending Vic. The second part of The Machine then begins with Beth bringing Vic home from the hospice; his unresponsive body is difficult to get through the door, and she wonders if the neighbours are watching. This is a marvellous touch, because it draws parallels between Vic and the Machine, underlining the similar position that each has come to occupy in Beth’s life. Smythe then depicts the routine that Beth has to establish, looking after Vic in his current state, and playing back his memories through the Machine. The detail is unflinching, emphasising that this is what Beth must do to achieve the end she wants – perhaps the regime that Beth’s caught up in is the real Machine.

Smythe’s evocation of place in The Machine is economical and effective. Beth lives on the Isle of Wight, the crossing to the mainland now made more treacherous by the effects of a warming climate (so Beth is partly dislocated by geography, which mirrors her emotional state). The heat frays tempers has brought about all sorts of little pragmatic social changes; we see these particularly through the tense relations between adults and young people in the novel – and, again, the technique underscores Beth’s feelings, this time her desperation.

I’m tempted to quote from The Machine, because its prose hits the mark so well. But the real effect of Smythe’s writing comes not from its individual pieces, but from the accumulation of the whole – its relentless, plain-speaking precision. Smythe portrays a situation which is as intense for the reader to experience as it would be for Beth, because we move through it in the same way, and at the same pace, as she does. The line ultimately blurs between whether Beth is doing what she does for Vic or for herself ; and maybe it doesn’t matter – maybe it all comes back to the actions, the mechanics.

Elsewhere
James Smythe’s website
Some other reviews of The Machine: Nina Allan; Savidge Reads; Words of Mercury; For Winter Nights.

#IFFP2014 guest post: Jacqui on The Sorrow of Angels

Time for another IFFP guest review from my fellow shadow-juror Jacqui Patience. Last month, Jacqui looked at Ma Jian’s The Dark Road; now it’s The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson. Of course, now the shortlists are out, we know that Stefánsson’s book made it on to the shadow shortlist but not the official one; I’m sad not to see it in the actual final six, as it has been one of the discoveries of the shadowing process for me.I’d go so far as to say that The Sorrow of Angels is the best written/translated book on the longlist; I’m still unsure what I think of the novel overall, but there’s a re-read to come before the shadow shortlisting.

Anyway, enough from me; here’s Jacqui…

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Sorrow of AngelsThe Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson
Translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton

Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Sorrow of Angels is the second volume in a trilogy that began with Heaven and Hell (published in 2011). Set in a small fishing village in 19th-century Iceland, a place that feels close to the end of the world, the story opens with the arrival of Postman Jens in the community; he’s in a bad way, battered by the bitter wind and snow, almost frozen solid on his horse. After a short recovery, Jens is challenged by Sigurður (the local doctor and someone with considerable influence) to cover another postal route. The terrain is treacherous, ‘likely hellish after constant snowfall, relentless wind, only to be ventured by highly experienced travellers’ and our man is unfamiliar with the area. If Jens fails to deliver the post on time, his job will be at risk; if he succeeds, it strengthens his position against the doctor and there is no love lost between these two. Jens quickly accepts the mission, the prospect of getting one over on Sigurður being too tempting to resist.

However, the central character in The Sorrow of Angels is the boywho, some quick research tells me, is the main protagonist in the earlier book Heaven and Hell. The boy, unnamed throughout, is dispatched to accompany Jens on his perilous journey to transport the mail in good time. The postman is afraid of the sea and would never make it alone over the fjord that forms the initial leg of their course. He needs someone with him who can ‘row him over, keep a decent pace with him on the trek’.

By now we’re about one-third of the way into the novel and it’s at this point that the narrative really kicks in for me. The expedition itself plays out over the remaining 200 pages and we follow the pair as they battle through blizzards and incessant winds, struggling to survive everything the environment seems determined to throw their way:

The snow piles up on them, they keep going, step-by-step, cold but undefeated. Then Jens falls for the fifth time. Perhaps because the land has started to rise; not much, but enough. It snows and snow blows over them, blows down from the mountain in enormous amounts, blows violently, it’s nearly impossible to breathe and Jens gropes feebly for the postal trumpet, tries to free it from his shoulder and hand it to the boy, opens his mouth to say something but his tongue is frozen, because first it’s words that freeze, then life. (pgs 139-140)

They forge ahead in their endeavour to deliver the mail. The occasional isolated farmhouse offers a brief respite from the elements and some welcome, if meagre, nourishment. It’s a world where visitors are few and far between, where the kindness of strangers is everything, where small gestures speak volumes:

The boy gulps his coffee to burn off the fatigue; he would have preferred to sleep longer, Jens sits with his head bowed but looks up when Jakobina returns with flatbread and butter; she’s tall, her movements are strong and graceful, her brown eyes meet those of the postman, she places the tray between them, brushing as if by accident, Jens’ hand, which rests solidly on the table. A hand that touches another hand in this way is saying something; Jens knows this but dares not respond. (pg 201)

Alongside their physical struggle to survive, there are other journeys taking place, other battles being fought. Jens, sullen and uncommunicative, is deep in thought wrestling with his feelings for Salvör, a woman who has experienced darkness in her past. He knows he should open his heart and express his feelings to her, otherwise he risks losing a chance to find contentment. But so far he’s been unable to commit.

The boy, meanwhile, is trying to anchor himself following the loss of loved ones. As an adolescent, he’s also grappling with new emotions and thoughts of Ragnheiður, a girl from the fishing village, flicker through his mind. Keen to talk, the boy probes Jens about the cause of his soul-searching.

During their journey Jens and the boy develop an understated, yet heartfelt, bond. They come dangerously close to losing one another on more than one occasion, but Jens remains mindful of the need to take care of his young companion. Up on the heaths and mountains, the space between life and death seems very narrow as we become acutely aware of the fragility of life.

Night is surely approaching and death is surely approaching, that invisible being, constantly lurking, stealing jewels, hoarding rubbish, doesn’t turn up its nose at anything, and sends fatigue, cold, hopelessness and surrender out ahead, four savage dogs that sniff out anything living in blind storms. (pg 181)

The Sorrow of Angels is a spellbinding novel, beautifully written in a lyrical, poetic style. Everything seems to flow effortlessly, from Stefánsson’s luminous prose through to Philip Roughton’s excellent translation. Stefánsson creates an ethereal, almost otherworldly atmosphere in this novel and it vividly captures man’s struggle with the adversities of life.

The publisher’s notes indicate that all parts of this trilogy can be read independently. However, having read The Sorrow of Angels, I do wish I’d had the time to start with Heaven and Hell before embarking on part two of the trilogy. I just felt a little disorientated at the beginning of the narrative and I’m sure I missed some of the nuances and subtleties in the interplay between characters in the village community.  That said, I’ve read thirteen of the fifteen books longlisted for this year’s IFFP and The Sorrow of Angels is most certainly in my top three. I’m delighted to see it in our shadow-group shortlist and the closing scenes left me yearning for the next part in the trilogy. And of course I shall have to go back and read Heaven and Hell to fill in those gaps.

The Sorrow of Angels is published in the UK by MacLehose Press.

Source: library copy.

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Read more reviews of The Sorrow of Angels by the shadow IFFP jury: Tony’s Reading List; Messenger’s Booker; Dolce Bellezza.

Read Jacqui’s other IFFP reviews: Brief Loves that Live ForeverButterflies in NovemberA Man in LoveA Meal in WinterRevengeStrange Weather in TokyoTen; The Dark Road; The Mussel Feast; Back to Back;.

This post is part of a series on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Shiny New Books and Jam

First of all, I need to tell you about a new book recommendation site: Shiny New Books. It’s the brainchild of four UK book bloggers (Annabel, Victoria, Simon, and Harriet), and features original and reprint reviews by contributors from all corners of the blogosphere. I’m in the first issue, with a revised version of my piece on Ray Robinson’s Jawbone Lake (think of this as the Director’s Cut of the original review). Have a look around the rest of SNB; there’s some great stuff on there, and I hope the site will go from strength to strength.

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In another corner of the web, Fiction Uncovered (now the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize) is gearing up for another year, and I’ve reviewed for them the new novel by a Fiction Uncovered alumnus. Here are my thoughts on Jam by Jake Wallis Simons…

JamJake Wallis Simons appeared on the first Fiction Uncovered list in 2011 for The English German Girl, his novel about a girl sent to England on the Kindertransport in the 1930s. Following a thriller (2012’s The Pure, written as Jake Simons), the author returns with Jam, a novel which follows a varied cast as they experience one of modern life’s nuisances: being stuck in traffic.

Structurally, Jam resembles a disaster novel, insofar as it moves between the perspectives of multiple characters all affected by the same event – though here the event is not the end of the world, but a traffic jam on the M25; and Wallis Simons is less interested in the jam itself than in how his characters are changed by encountering each other. We begin with Ursula and Max, a couple not quite as firmly in love as they once were, and particularly concerned right now with letting their friends (whose daughter they’re bringing home) know about the delay. With no phone signal, Max heads out to find someone who will let him make a call; he gets talking to Jim, a supermarket delivery driver who makes clear that he can’t give away the stock in his van – though he does have some crisps in the front, if Max wants some. Other characters see what’s going on, and Jim’s van becomes the locus of attention, not all of it welcome.

To an extent, the traffic jam works as a metaphor for the characters’ life situations. Many of them feel stuck in some way – like Shauna, who’s looking for her dream man; or young Shahid, who rues his messed-up trial for Chelsea – and the night’s events enable at least some of them to move on. The way Wallis Simons orchestrates this is perhaps his novel’s key strength: some characters make a central contribution to events, others are peripheral; but all take their place as significant parts of the whole. By the end of Jam, we’ve seen a slice of life: some people win, some lose; one individual may be changed forever, while another just carries on as before. The vehicles start to move again, and those circumstances that brought everyone together become lost in the flow; but Wallis Simons has shown how extraordinary a mundane situation can be to those caught up in it.

(Original review.)

Reviews elsewhere: Dave Hutchinson and Jeremy P. Bushnell

Europe in Autumn

Today I’m rounding up a couple of recent reviews that I’ve had published on other sites. First, I am back at Strange Horizons with a look at Dave Hutchinson‘s new novel, Europe in Autumn  (published by Solaris). This is a tale of espionage set in a future Europe which has fractured into myriad small polities – but there’s a quietness to the whole book that I find very interesting. Europe in Autumn has an engagement with form and tone that I’d love to see more often in contemporary genre science fiction. You can read my full review of the novel here.

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I also have a new review up at We Love This Book, of Jeremy P. Bushnell‘s debut novel, The Weirdness (published by Melville House). Here it is:

WeirdnessJeremy Bushnell’s first novel is the tale of a man finding his way in a world that turns out to be stranger than he ever imagined.

Billy Ridgeway is a thirty-year-old aspiring writer who wonders at the weirdness of everyday life: isn’t it just odd that you can walk into a bodega in New York and buy bananas? And why exactly did people start keeping animals as pets? One day, the Devil visits Billy’s apartment and offers him a deal: stop a warlock who’s trying to unlock the secrets of a magical artefact that could destroy the world, and Lucifer will ensure that Billy’s book is published (short stories are such a hard sell, after all). Billy doesn’t quite agree at first, but the Devil has ways of persuading him; and so begins Billy’s journey of adventure and discovery.

Perhaps the greatest strength of The Weirdness is its sheer exuberance (or cheek), as Bushnell gleefully piles absurdity on top of outlandishness. Barely any part of Billy’s life remains ordinary, so it’s not so much a case of suspending your disbelief as just abandoning it and going with the flow. Yet there’s a certain distancing effect at play, as though all the magic is just a sideshow; at the heart of The Weirdness is the story of Billy finding out what really matters in life – and what matters is much more down to earth. For all that Bushnell’s novel is a fantastical romp, it doesn’t lose sight of the human dimension.

(The original review is here.)

#IFFP2014 guest post: @JacquiWine on The Dark Road

Today I have a guest post from the one member of the IFFP shadow jury who doesn’t have their own blog, Jacqui Patience (@JacquiWine on Twitter). Various blogs (including Winston’s Dad, Tony’s Reading List, and The Writes of Woman) have been hosting Jacqui’s thoughts on the longlisted titles (see the end of this post for links); and now she’s been kind enough to visit Follow the Thread, with a review of Ma Jian’s The Dark Road. So, without further ado, I’ll hand you over to Jacqui…

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Dark RoadThe Dark Road by Ma Jian 

Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew

The infant spirit sees Mother sitting on the edge of her bed, her hand clutching her swollen belly, her legs trembling with fear…

Meili rest her hands on her pregnant belly and feels the fetus’s heartbeat thus like a watch beneath a pillow. The heavy banging on the compound gate grows louder, the dim light bulb hanging from the ceiling sways. The family planning officers have come to get me, she says to herself. She raises her feet from the basin of warm water in which they’ve been soaking, hides under her quilt and waits for the gate to be forced open. (pg. 1)

That’s the opening section of Ma Jian’s latest novel The Dark Road. The subject is shocking and deeply disturbing as it tackles issues raised by China’s state-enforced one-child policy. Set in relatively recent times in the provinces along the Yangtze, the novel tells the story of a young woman, Meili, and her family. Meili, born into a simple peasant family, is married to Kongzi, a rather stubborn schoolteacher and direct descendant of Confucius (76th generation Kong). They have a two-year-old daughter, Nannan, but Kongzi is desperate for a son and heir to maintain the family line; daughters serve little purpose in this respect:

My brother has no sons, so it’s my responsibility to continue the family line. Our daughters will join their husbands’ family when they marry, and their names won’t be recorded in the Kong register. So they serve no purpose to us. (pg.34)

Family planning officers are combing the villages, implementing a regime of draconian measures including enforced abortions and sterilisations – any pregnant woman who doesn’t have a birth permit is given an immediate abortion together with a 10,000-yuan fine. It’s an environment where threatening slogans cry out from walls at almost every turn:

SEVER THE FALLOPIAN TUBES OF POVERTY; INSERT THE IUDs OF PROSPERITY (pg.15)

After the first child: an IUD. After the second child: sterilisation. Pregnant with a third or fourth? The fetus will be killed, killed, killed (pg. 32)

ANY PERSON FOUND TO HAVE EVADED MANDATORY STERILISATION WILL BE ARRESTED AND FINED (pg. 86)

The state’s birth control policies dictate that a couple in Kongzi and Meili’s situation can have a second child once their daughter turns five, but Meili falls pregnant too soon, two or three years before her permitted time. While Meili has been able to conceal the early stages of her pregnancy, the couple are forced to go on the run fearing for the safety of their unborn child.

The story then follows the family as they journey down the ‘Dark Road’ of the Yangtze and Gui rivers on a boat, attempting to evade the authorities in the process. They join a world of migrant workers — many of whom are also fleeing from a similar threat — as they head towards Heaven Township. For Meili, this destination represents a glimmer of light on the horizon; it’s the one place where ‘you can live in complete freedom…no one checks how many children you have’. (p 27)

The Dark Road depicts a world where women suffer repeated acts of horrific cruelty.  Scenes of enforced abortion are described in merciless and brutal detail. In the following passage, the police discover a woman heavily pregnant with her third child as she hides in the reeds near a reservoir:

The wife was dragged to the school, where family planning officers strapped her to a wooden desk and injected two shots into her abdomen. The aborted fetus is now lying at Kong Qing’s feet in a plastic basin. It has its father’s flat nose and small eyes. Scraps of amniotic fluid are still stuck to its black hair. (pg 7-8)

It’s unflinching stuff, stark in its portrayal of the sheer savagery of abuse forced upon these families by the authorities.

Once I get going, I rarely abandon a book. But in all honesty, if it weren’t for my involvement in the IFFP shadow group, I would have been quite close to bailing on The Dark Road at the 75-page mark. That’s not to say it’s a bad book; it’s well-written, the main characters and their environment are vividly painted and I admire Jian for the way he’s used fiction to expose these atrocities. But this is a book suffused with tragic encounters and shocking acts of brutality, all of which makes for a very distressing and heart-wrenching read. The only rays of hope here are Meili’s determination and her desire to seek a better life for her family…and that’s what spurred me on to finish reading this one.

While researching and writing The Dark Road, Jian posed as an official reporter to gain access to family planning offices and hospitals where forced abortions and sterilisations are carried out. He also lived as a vagrant to experience life among those on the run from the consequences of China’s one-child policy. Jian has clearly drawn on this experience to great effect in his uncompromising depiction of the horrors that haunt this corner of the world.

Finally, turning to The Dark Road’s chances as a contender for the IFFP, Ma Jian is a well-respected writer and considered one of China’s leading dissident voices. It’s a book that tackles an unpalatable topic and many of its images will linger in the mind long after the last page is turned.  Even though it’s not one of my personal favourites from this year’s longlist, I wouldn’t be surprised if it progresses to the next stage…we shall see when the shortlist appears on 8th April.

The Dark Road is published in the UK by Chatto & Windus.

Source: library copy.

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Read more reviews of The Dark Road by the shadow IFFP jury: Dolce Bellezza; Winston’s Dad; Tony’s Reading List;

Read Jacqui’s other IFFP reviews: Brief Loves that Live Forever; Butterflies in NovemberA Man in Love; A Meal in Winter; RevengeStrange Weather in Tokyo; Ten.

This post is part of a series on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

#IFFP2014: Ogawa, Knausgaard, Mingarelli

Yoko Ogawa, Revenge (1998)
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (2013)

RevengeI’ve read two of Yoko Ogawa’s books previously (see my thoughts on Hotel Iris and The Diving Pool); each time, I have been struck by how she anatomises the dark psyches of her characters. Revenge is a little different: a collection of eleven linked stories, it unsettles more through the overall effect of the tales as a composite.

Revenge begins with ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’, whose narrator goes to buy two strawberry shortcakes; a conversation with someone from the neighbouring shop reveals that the narrator is doing this in memory of her six-year-old son, whom she found dead in a refrigerator. This is how Ogawa’s stories work: mundane details are shown to have dark, sometimes even absurd, underpinnings.

‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ ends with its narrator discovering a young woman crying in the bakery’s kitchen.  This young woman reappears in the second tale’s, ‘Fruit Juice’, when she invites that story’s narrator, a boy from her school, to go with her as moral support to a meal with the father she is about to meet for the first time. Strawberry cake is served is served at this meal; by story’s end, we not only know why the young woman is crying as she sits in her kitchen, we also anticipate with dismay what her reaction to the current customer’s order is likely to be.

As Ogawa’s collection continues, more links emerge between the stories: at first, isolated details reappear; then characters seem to recur (the identities of some remain sketchy, so you can’t be entirely sure whether or not character X mentioned in one story is also character Y from another); one story in Revenge may appear to be fictional in the reality of another; images and events are repeated or echoed in strange new contexts. The relative straightforwardness of Ogawa’s prose (and Stephen Snyder’s effectively matter-of-fact translation) only heightens the sense of being caught up in a world where it’s uncertain which is worse: the thought that all the details of reality won’t cohere, or the thought that they might. Revenge is one of those story collections that works, and is best appreciated, as a complete whole; it’s also one that stays in the mind long after reading.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, A Man in Love: My Struggle, Book 2 (2009)
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (2013)

Knausgaard 2Where Volume 1 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle focused on its author’s adolescence and reaction to his father’s death, Volume 2 chronicles the period when Knausgaard left his first wife and moved to Sweden, where he fell in love with Linda, and examines his life as a husband and father. Reading A Man in Love has been a strange experience because, while the general palette of the first book remains – the dense treatment of everyday minutiae, punctuated by reflections on life and art – some quality that made A Death in the Family feel transcendent to me is missing.

Knausgaard takes up his key concerns from the first volume: that he feels preoccupied by the business of everyday life when what he really wants (needs) to do is write; and that he is more deeply moved by contemplating art and the natural world than by those closest to him. In this volume, he also talks more about how fatherhood affects his sense of masculinity; feeling constrained by Swedish society; and how the heady rush of falling in love with Linda didn’t last.

Don Barlett’s translation is as fine as ever, but A Man in Love doesn’t touch me as deeply as its predecessor did. When I read A Death in the Family, I could feel the clash of Knausgaard’s emotions rising off the page; with this book, that clash is still on the page, but it stays there. To me, A Death in the Family felt like something that Knausgaard needed to write in order to work through that part of his life; A Man in Love is good enough as far as it goes, but doesn’t have that same sense of urgency.

Hubert Mingarelli, A Meal in Winter (2012)
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor (2013)

Meal in WinterHubert Mingarelli is a prolific author in his native France, but A Meal in Winter is the first of his books to appear in English. It’s a novella narrated by one of three German guards who are sent out to retrieve an escaped Jewish prisoner. On their way back to the prison camp, the guards and their captive stop off in an abandoned house, and start to prepare a meal of soup. When a Pole walking past the house also seeks shelter, his raw anti-Semitism leads the guards to question what they’re about to do.

With A Meal in Winter being so short, the stage is set for a tight, intense piece of fiction. In some ways, this is exactly what we get: Mingarelli strips out most of the historical detail, thereby closing the distance between reader and book. The characters’ world is not ‘World War Two’ understood as a period of history; their world is this journey, this landscape, this house, and we are there with them.

It doesn’t seem quite right, though, to say that we come to empathise with the guards as the novella progresses. It’s more that we see the contours of their worldview, and how that is challenged by their experiences; empathy at a further remove, perhaps. But I can’t shake the feeling that the full intensity of this situation doesn’t quite come through the sparseness of Mingarelli’s prose (or Sam Taylor’s translation). For me, A Meal in Winter is almost there… but only almost.

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What of these books’ chances on the IFFP shortlist? Even though the Knausgaard disappointed me, I will be extremely surprised if it doesn’t make the shortlist (though I don’t expect it to be my preferred winner). I would be happy to see Ogawa’s book on the shortlist, and suspect it has a good chance. The Mingarelli, I don’t know: it didn’t really work well enough for me to want to see it shortlisted, but it has been better received in the reviews I’ve seen, so it may just be a book that didn’t click with me.

This post is part of a series on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

#IFFP2014: Javier Marías and Andreï Makine

Javier Marías, The Infatuations (2012)
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

Andreȉ Makine, Brief Loves that Live Forever (2011)
Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan (2013)

My first IFFP titles are both by veteran authors whom I’m reading here for the first time.

InfatuationsJavier Marías’ The Infatuations is narrated by one María Dolz, who takes breakfast at the same café as an attractive couple who are clearly very much in love; though she doesn’t speak to them, María enjoys being in the same place as them, feels her life is brightened by the simple fact of their happiness. All this is disrupted when the couple stop appearing at the café, and María discovers that the man, a businessman named Miguel Desvern (or Deverne – his family changed their name for their film distribution business; nothing settles into stable certainty here) was murdered. When María later sees the woman of the couple return to the café alone, she introduces herself; she and the woman – Luisa – become fast friends, then María gets to know Javier Díaz-Varela, a museum???friend of Luisa’s. As María becomes more attracted to Díaz-Varela, she has to face not just that he has feelings for Luisa, but that she might not know him at all as well as thinks.

Perhaps Marías’ key concern in The Infatuations is the gap between what can be thought and what can be known. At the start, María watches Luisa and Miguel from afar; she wonders who they might be, though of course she can’t know. Then she tries to imagine what Miguel might have thought before he died, and realises she can’t know that either. The novel is full of its characters’ second-guessing others’ thought processes, or recalling their own thoughts to such a degree of detail that the very amount of information causes us to doubt its truth. The more you think, Marías seems to say, the less you can really know.

But this uncertainty is not confined to thoughts; when Marías’ characters engage in lengthy, discursive speeches, we see that the author’s techniques are distorting the reality of his novel as well, when his characters engage in lengthy, discursive speeches. This creates an interesting contrast between content and style: at the centre of the novel is an act of extreme violence, but the text that surrounds it – that mediates and tries to make sense of it – is still and reflective. In the end, perhaps reflection is all we have; as one character remarks, even the darkest of life’s events will eventually recede and become memories. It is the distinct texture Marías creates from layers of subjectivity (and Margaret Jull Costa has done a superb job of conveying this texture through her translation) that makes The Infatuations for me.

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Brief Loves‘The fatal mistake that we make is looking for a paradise that endures,’ says the unnamed narrator of Andreȉ Makine’s Brief Loves that Live Forever, pointing towards the central theme of this novel: that the things which last in life are actually the fleeting moments, the memories and experiences. Makine (a Russian author who writes in French) guides us through key moments in his protagonist’s life, when the narrator experienced a transitory instance of love, which has nonetheless stayed with him: seeing a girl run into the arms of the grandmother she’s never met, for example; or a summer affair by the Black Sea.

Alongside this are glimpses of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, often represented by structures which are ignored or decaying (or both): the grandstand for a parade, which is soon emptied; an factory bearing a slogan that claims permanence but goes unnoticed; perhaps most striking of all, a giant orchard that was intended to make a statement, but not to be harvested. These structures may pass into ruin, but the emotions experienced in their shadow remain.

The interplay between these two aspects lies at the heart of Makine’s novel, and leaves its mark on our narrator: though he sees flaws in the Soviet project, he has not entirely discarded it by the time of perestroika; but it’s not that he clings to the old times so much as he recognises that they have provided the context for the life he has lived Makine’s prose and Geoffrey Strachan’s translation are elegant, and the novel’s reflections on love and history insightful; all adds up to a fine short novel.

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What about these books as contenders for the IFFP? They strike me as well-made mid- to late-career novels, but not as the kind of major work that I’d want to see winning an award like the IFFP. I admired, enjoyed, and would recommend both books; but, at the same time, I suspect they are not the best that their respective authors have written. So I could see either of these novels making the shortlist, but I’d hope for more from a potential winner.

This post is part of a series on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Reading round-up: early March

Rebecca Hunt, Everland (2014)

EverlandThe author of 2010′s Mr Chartwell returns with a tale of polar exploration. In March 1913, three men embark on an expedition to an uncharted Antarctic island which is being dubbed ‘Everland’ – a journey that we know won’t end well, as we’ve already seen others of their ship’s crew go after the men a month later, and find only one alive. In 2012, the men’s expedition has become famous, and three researchers set out from their base on their own trek to Everland. Over time, the two expeditions start to parallel each other – subtly at first, then more overtly, in terms of both events and the frictions that develop within each group. Hunt places her characters in a situation where they’re trapped by their environment, then uses the parallels between the two groups to underline just how much they are trapped.

Tamara Astafieva, Born in Siberia (2014)
Translated from the Russian by Luba Ioffe

Born in 1937, Tamara Astafieva became a television editor for the Soviet press agency, Novosti. This book is a collection of autobiographical essays (and the occasional poem) sent by Astafieva a few years ago to an old acquaintance, British TV director Michael Darlow (who also provides linking commentary throughout). Born in Siberia illuminates a time and place in history that I personally didn’t know about; and Astafieva comes across as a bright, charismatic personality who is a pleasure to meet through the pages of her book.

Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1955)

This was my book group’s latest choice: the tale of Thomas Fowler, a British journalist working in Indochina, and the idealistic American Alden Pyle, who believes that the  war can be ended with a ‘third force’. Reading The Quiet American was an unusual experience for me, as I saw the film back in 2002, but don’t remember much about it; so the book kept snagging on shadowy memories. I often find it difficult to get into books written in the 1950s and earlier (I don’t know why; a cultural distance that’s hard for me to cross, perhaps); and this was true for Greene’s novel to an extent – though I appreciated its nuanced exploration of morality; and the ending could still shock me, even though I knew what was coming.

Carlos Busqued, Under This Terrible Sun (2009)
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, 2013

I said to myself that I would only buy an e-reader if I felt that I were truly missing out on ebooks that I wanted to read. I finally reached that point when I started hearing about publishers like Frisch & Co., a Berlin-based who specialise in digital works in translations; and my first electronic title is one of theirs.

Under This Terrible Sun (the first novel by Argentinian writer Busqued) begins as Javier Cetarti – who does little more than lounge around his apartment watching documentaries – learns that his mother’s lover has killed her, and Cetarti’s brother. The bearer of this news, Duarte, has an idea to cash in on a life insurance policy, and Cetarti is happy to play along. But Duarte has darker motivations than Cerarti realises. Busqued’s novel works almost by stealth: the characters will drift along for a while; then something sinister or violent will intrude – unbidden at first, then with growing tension, until… ah, but that would be telling.

Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers (2013)

Flamethrowers

In 1977, Reno (not her real name, but it’s as much as we’ll get) heads east on her motorcycle to New York, where she becomes involved in the art scene. A relationship with an Italian artist leads her to Milan, where a more political revolution is taking shape. The Flamethrowers is a long novel, dense with incident; yet in some ways Reno’s narrative voice remains detached from it all. Kushner‘s novel reflects on performance, and finds it in all the worlds through which Reno moves – and not always to the good. The ending manages to be poignant, chilling and optimistic all at once.

Emma J. Lannie, Behind a Wardrobe in Atlantis (2014)

Mantle Lane Press is a new small publisher focusing on short volumes by writers with an East Midlands connection. This, Mantle Lane’s second book, is a set of eight short stories by Derby-resident Emma J. Lannie. Lannie’s stories are snapshots of characters at key emotional moments, and are shot through with flashes of myth or fairytale. So, for example, ‘Rapunzelled’ sees a girl caught in the shadow of her photographer sister as they go on a shoot in an abandoned tower; while the narrator of ‘Not Gretel’ wanders through the forest, leaving her old life behind, in search of… something. This book is an intriguing start to Lannie’s career, and I look forward to reading more from her in the future.

We Love This Book reviews: Hannah Michell and Deborah Kay Davies

Here are two of my latest reviews for The Bookseller‘s online book magazine, We Love This Book:

Hannah Michell, The Defections (2014)

DefectionsHannah Michell’s first novel is a tale of secrets and desire at a meeting-point of cultures.

Mia Kim is a translator at the British embassy in Seoul; she’s been able o work there despite her uncle’s history of political activism, and knows that in some ways she is still on shaky ground – her uncle now runs a school for North Korean defectors. Mia is infatuated with the new counsellor, Thomas Dalton-Ellis, whom she puts in her debt when she hides the evidence that he caused. The two embark on an affair, but then Thomas is given the assignment of running a discreet check on Mia background to see if anything might compromise her integrity – and Mia learns that one of her uncle’s young defectors, may be passing messages over the border…

The Defections is partly a novel of the past refusing to let go of, or threatening to catch up with, its characters: Thomas left his previous posting in Vietnam under a cloud; Mia’s uncle’s activities may affect her current position, of course, but she’s also haunted by never knowing the English mother, of whom she is reminded whenever she looks in the mirror. These stories combine to create a nicely complex background, and you never quite know which detail the plot will turn on next.

Much of the pleasure of reading The Defections comes from seeing the different plotlines play off against each other, as a perfectly explicable detail from one character’s viewpoint becomes open to misinterpretation when seen from another. We also see how easily the personal may slide into the political for these individuals. Michell has created an engaging novel which leaves the reader intrigued to see what she will write next.

(Original review)

Deborah Kay Davies, Reasons She Goes to the Woods (2014)

ReasonsDeborah Kay Davies’s second novel chronicles, in a series of fragments, the ordinary and extraordinary moments of one girl’s childhood.

Right from the beginning, Pearl is acutely aware of sensations: the rising and falling of her sleeping father’s chest; the feel of mud on her hands after she has been playing with worms; the sunlight and water of her beloved woods. The short, disconnected chapters (vignettes, almost) in which Davies writes reflect the intensity of Pearl’s experiences – place, action and emotion – are evoked vividly.

The Pearl depicted in these snapshots of her life is an ambivalent character: she can be cruel (she calls her younger brother “the Blob”, and often treats him with the contempt that implies), but she also has a strong capacity for love and friendship – when she lets people into her life. As the novel progresses we start to see more of the contours of Pearl’s world: the difficulties in her family life and suggestions that she may not perceive life in quite the way we had thought.

The full extent of this is revealed subtly: the tone of Davies’s prose and the closeness to Pearl’s viewpoint give Reasons She Goes to the Woods a slightly unreal quality, with a touch of the folktale. It’s up to the reader to tease out the reality of Pearl’s life (and to decide what ‘reality’ means in this context). We end up with a rounded, complex portrait of growing-up that has an atmosphere all of its own.

(Original review)

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On the subject of We Love This Book, I must congratulate my fellow blogger (and Eleanor Catton fan) Anna James from A Case for Books, who is starting a new job at the end of this month as The Bookseller‘s books and media editor. So: congratulations, Anna!